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From the earliest recorded military accounts, as far back as the Roman Empire, camouflage is described as concealment by design. Yet, it finds its true origin in nature’s design. From the masters of disguise in the insect world like the orchid mantis, to the stealthy predator lions of the savanna, nature invented camouflage. And, its visual impact has transmuted from forests and jungles to streets and fashion runways, where the objective is to stand out, rather than blend in. Camouflage: In Plain Sight expands beyond the familiar associations of camouflage to explore how we work to be seen and unseen. Camouflage also explores how contemporary society and new technology continually transform the way we hide in plain sight, even to create anti-camouflage: invisibility cloaks inspired by the dermal modification properties of snakes, fish and butterflies; algorithm-based data “masking”; counter-surveillance cosmetics and apparel that thwart thermal imaging and confuse facial recognition systems.
The challenges in developing a design for the exhibition was in creating a different experience for each theme in the exhibition—taking the visitor from a digital camouflage world, into a natural history room with a live cuttlefish aquarium built into an exhibit wall and insect specimens pinned to slanted platforms, into a military room with a giant inflatable tank and museum artifacts, into a contemporary art exhibition with a giant Andy Warhol painting, into a fashion runway, into an Arctic environment with a taxidermy polar bear, and into what might appear to be a “big box” store featuring camouflage items for hunting and fishing.
Each space was distinct, to keep the visitor engaged, including with hands-on activities and interactive video that changed with visitor interaction, but also the design needed to provide a cohesive visual thread throughout so that the exhibition felt varied but not disparate and disjointed. The design goal was to challenge the standard definition of camouflage but also to provide ways for visitors to recognize the familiar. Object labels were laser cut with a camouflage pattern at their edge. Hints of camouflage throughout the Museum also led the visitor to the main exhibition space—the façade of the Museum’s elevator featured the “razzle dazzle” camouflage pattern of bold black-and-white patterns and an inflatable camouflage tank was placed on the Museum’s lawn. Camouflage is about distorting the way we see, so the design worked to capture this idea in the visitor experience.
30,000 people attended the exhibition. Evaluative response was highly positive.